Elena Bonner's Rich Legacy

Remembering the life and accomplishments of a Soviet dissident


There was a time when moral giants walked the earth. One of them, Soviet dissident Elena Bonner—widow of the great physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov—left us on Sunday at the age of 88. A model of courage and principle, Bonner was one of my heroes from the days when I was a teenager in the Soviet Union and my parents listened to news of Sakharov and Bonner on banned foreign radio broadcasts. She was also a personal hero I had the privilege to meet: Four years ago, we had a long talk at Bonner's apartment in Brookline, Mass., when I interviewed her for a feature for The Weekly Standard.

A devoted partner to her husband, Bonner was much more than his helpmate. A former World War II army nurse, the daughter of a father executed in Stalin's purges and a mother who endured 10 years in the Gulag camps, Bonner was already active in Soviet Russia's budding human rights movement when she met Sakharov in 1970. Her influence likely helped radicalize his opposition to the Soviet regime.

After their marriage in 1972, Bonner became the Kremlin propaganda machine's scapegoat for Sakharov's scandalous fall from grace as a top Soviet scientist. She was attacked, with blatantly anti-Semitic and misogynist overtones, as a wily Zionist and a gold-digging seductress. Bonner remained unbowed. In the 1980s, she served as her husband's link to the world during his exile in the town of Gorky, until she herself was forced to share that exile.

In 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms brought the couple back to Moscow. Sakharov died of a heart attack three years later at 68—leaving Bonner to fight the good fight for both of them. And that she did, to the very last.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Bonner was one of many former dissidents involved in the democratic transition under Boris Yeltsin. Yet in 1994, she resigned from Yeltsin's Human Rights Commission in protest against the war in Chechnya. She later came to see the early 1990s as a badly missed opportunity: Putting all their eggs in the Yeltsin basket, Russia's pro-democracy forces endorsed a government-crafted constitution that eventually allowed an executive power grab to trample the parliament. Another major mistake, she told me in 2007, was to let much of the Soviet-era communist elite seize power in the guise of born-again "democrats."

The chicken came home to roost with the rise of Vladimir Putin and his neo-authoritarian regime. Bonner, by then spending much of her time in the Boston area for family and medical reasons (her two children from her first marriage have lived in the United States since the mid-1970s), once again found herself the target of officially sponsored smears. In 2004, after she co-signed a letter criticizing Putin's Soviet-style attempts to portray human rights activists as Western stooges, a commentator on Russia's leading television channel lambasted her for spewing anti-Russian libels and always backing "the U.S. and NATO" against Russia. The stench of the bad old days hung in the air.

In her 80s, in failing health after several heart operations, Bonner had to watch from a distance as the freedoms for which she had fought were squashed one by one in the country she still called home. The attitude of the West, too, was a bitter disappointment. To Bonner, the tendency of both the European powers and the United States to turn a blind eye to the emergence of what she saw as fascist-style statism in Russia reflected both naiveté (exemplified by George W. Bush's infamous statement that he had looked Putin in the eye and "was able to get a sense of his soul") and oil- and gas-based cynicism. A strong supporter of the war against radical Islamic terror, she bristled at the acceptance of the Kremlin regime as a partner in this war: "By passing off the tragedy of Chechnya as a part of the struggle against global terrorism," she told me in 2007, "Russia has deceived the West and persistently pushed the Chechen population into the radical Islamist corner."

The relative neglect of Sakharov's legacy in the West was another source of disappointment. Bonner fondly recalled Ronald Reagan, who mentioned Sakharov in several speeches, including his 1987 New Year's Day radio message to the Soviet people broadcast over the Voice of America. She told me wistfully that "Reagan had a soft spot for Sakharov and regarded him as a like-minded man"—an attitude that she felt had given way to "an insulting indifference" among American politicians after the Cold War.

Among Bonner's greatest fears was that, once she was gone, the Kremlin regime would claim Sakharov as its own by recasting him as a champion of Russian nationalism and populism rather than liberal values. Her tireless work to prepare Sakharov's diaries for publication was not only a labor of love but an effort to preempt such a hijacking.
Too frail to leave her apartment unassisted, Bonner still found the strength to travel as far as Strasbourg and Oslo to speak on causes she held dear. These causes included not only the fate of freedom in Russia but the defense of Israel, which she saw as another integral part of the fight for freedom in the modern world. Always frank, Bonner had harsh words for human rights activists who showed more concern for terror suspects held at Guantanamo than for Hamas-held Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Bonner was a woman of crusty temperament and strong, even stubborn will (evidenced, for one, by her refusal to quit smoking despite multiple health problems). During our first meeting, I asked if she had read a recent book by a Russian writer on a subject we were discussing, and was startled by her steely "No, I have not"; later, I learned that she had had a falling out with the author over a minor disagreement. Yet she was also capable of remarkable caring. Despite her prickly relationship with Gorbachev, who frequently clashed with Sakharov when the latter served in the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies and rudely chastised him in a televised session the day before Sakharov's death, she spoke warmly of a telephone conversation she had had with him after he lost his wife, Raisa, to cancer.

Ironically, in death, Bonner was finally honored in her own country, with state-run TV airing pious tributes that conveniently omitted her activism after Sakharov's death. It's the sort of hypocrisy Bonner would have viewed with wry amusement. Yet she never lost the hope that someday, freedom in Russia would thrive—though she knew she would not live to see it.

The world is a poorer place for Bonner's passing. It is also richer for her legacy of speaking truth to power—a legacy relevant under any system.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.